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SANEF condemns the conviction of Philippines journalist Maria Ressa and former Rappler reporter Reynaldo Santos Jr.

SANEF condemns the conviction of Philippines journalist Maria Ressa and former Rappler reporter Reynaldo Santos Jr.
Maria Ressa, CEO and Executive Editor of online news site Rappler. (Photo: EPA-EFE / Mark R Cristino)

The South African National Editors' Forum joins leading editors, media executives, and media freedom advocacy groups around the world in calling on the Philippine authorities to end their campaign of harassment and intimidation of fellow journalist Maria Ressa.

A court in the Philippines on Monday 15 June found Ressa, the executive editor of the news website Rappler, and former Rappler reporter Reynaldo Santos Jr, guilty of “cyber libel”, in a controversial case seen as a significant test of press freedom under the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte.

The court sentenced the pair to a minimum of six months and one day and a maximum of six years in jail. It allowed them to post bail, pending an appeal. They are the first two journalists in the Philippines to be convicted for cyber libel.

SANEF condemns in the strongest terms the conviction which amounts to a blow to media freedom in the Philippines. We find it ironic that presiding judge Raineldo Estacio-Montesa convicted the journalists, shamelessly quoting former president Nelson Mandela saying: “to be free is not merely to cast off one’s chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others.”

SANEF wishes to remind judge Estacio-Montesa and the Philippines authorities that Mandela did not only advocate for media freedom; he ensured that it thrived even when it was critical of him.

He told the International Press Institute Congress on 14 February 1994 in Cape Town: “A critical, independent and investigative press is the lifeblood of any democracy. The press must be free from state interference. It must have the economic strength to stand up to the blandishments of government officials. It must have sufficient independence from vested interests to be bold and inquiring without fear or favour. It must enjoy the protection of the constitution so that it can protect our rights as citizens. It is only such a free press that can temper the appetite of any government to amass power at the expense of the citizen.”

SANEF believes that the cases filed against Maria Ressa, the founder and editor of the online news site Rappler, were a transparent attempt to silence her and shut down Rappler in retaliation for its critical coverage of President Rodrigo Duterte and his administration.

In solidarity with media freedom advocacy groups around the world, SANEF regards the conviction of Rappler as part of a more massive assault on press freedom in the Philippines under President Duterte. The Duterte administration’s actions against the media gravely violate the fundamental rights to press freedom and freedom of expression and undermine the Philippine public’s right to access and receive independent news and information.

Shawn Crispin, senior Southeast Asia representative of the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), said: “We call on the Philippine authorities not to contest Maria Ressa and Reynaldo Santos’ appeals. And to stop their campaign of legal harassment against Rappler and other independent media outlets. The criminal prosecution of journalists for their work has no place in a country that purports to be a democracy.”

We also vehemently condemn the vicious online attacks and smear campaigns against Maria Ressa and other journalists at Rappler, which are a further attempt to bully them into silence and deliberately undermine their credibility. These attacks are unacceptable and unworthy of a democratic society.

We call on the Philippine authorities to drop all other charges against Ressa and Rappler, ensure that all attacks – online and offline – against journalists are investigated and stop all forms of harassment and intimidation against the media. DM

The South African National Editors’ Forum (SANEF) is a non-profit organisation whose members are editors, senior journalists and journalism trainers from all areas of the South African media. We are committed to championing South Africa’s hard-won freedom of expression and promoting quality, ethics and diversity in the South African media. We promote excellence in journalism through fighting for media freedom, writing policy submissions, research and education and training programmes. SANEF is not a union.

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